So Long, “Strike Force Five”

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“What would happen if five of America’s top eleven most beloathed talk-show hosts all talked on top of each other for an hour?” Jimmy Kimmel says at the start of the first episode of the intriguing and short-lived podcast “Strike Force Five.” “We’re about to find out.” For a handful of episodes (currently eight, plus a few more in the can and on the way), Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, and John Oliver became a podcast-host supergroup—riffing, regaling, and reading ads—in a high-profile effort to support their shows’ staffs during the writers’ strike. As the W.G.A. negotiated for rights that its members should have had years ago, including protection against A.I. and fair pay for work shown on streaming platforms, “Strike Force Five,” on Spotify, reminded us why we’ve missed late night and its writers.

We’ve been reminded of late night’s value a few times in recent years: first, circa the post-Letterman, post-Leno, post-Conan, post-Jon Stewart “Daily Show” changing of the guard, then during the Trump Administration, the pandemic, and then the strike. In the midst of a crisis, great late-night TV can feel like catharsis, even a kind of lifeline. The W.G.A. and SAG-AFTRA strikes, though not a pandemic-level crisis, have been a public reckoning with inequality and the economics of the digital age, and they resulted in the near-total suspension of production of new TV and movies. Just by existing, “Strike Force Five” helped us contend with that in a useful way. The podcast didn’t produce the kind of satisfaction that late night’s best monologue jokes and sketches, written by those long-striking writers, can deliver—and, if it had, the podcast’s premise could have backfired. But the show had a value of its own. It was novel to hear these five guys together, vocally supporting the strike while being mutually warm and respectful and busting one another’s chops.

Since it’s a podcast, not network television, Colbert slings cheerful F-bombs, Kimmel doesn’t have to interview stars of various Disney projects, and Oliver revels in the freedom of being able “to say what you think is true, not what you are told is legally defensible.” There’s an element of late-night-geek fun—probably intentionally so—as we hear them compare notes on sets, opening sequences, and misguided ideas. Colbert says that he collects swag from ephemeral talk shows (a “Chevy Chase Show” hat, a “Pat Sajak Show” silk jacket), to remind himself that it can all go away; Meyers says a redesign was inspired by Alec Baldwin asking Lorne Michaels, “Why does Seth’s set look like a sushi restaurant in Burbank?”; and Kimmel says that his manager once contacted Ben & Jerry’s about a Kimmel-branded ice-cream flavor, à la The Tonight Dough Starring Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dream, and that Ben & Jerry’s wasn’t interested. (If you’ve ever stared at a supermarket freezer and idly wondered about this, as I have, there’s your answer.)

There’s some reading-between-the-bonhomie intrigue, too—much of it involving Fallon. The podcast doesn’t address the September 7th Rolling Stone investigative piece that depicts him as an unkind leader with an unhappy staff. But even aside from that, Fallon, despite the Strike Force’s five-way jollity, seems like the group’s distractible odd man out. Toward the end of the second episode, Colbert, laughing, reveals that Fallon has just texted them all, saying that he wants to wrap it up. “So there’s a limit to how much you want to help the staff,” Colbert says. They all tease him a bit. “It’s so hot where I am,” Fallon protests, adding, “I’ve got things to do!” He’s also the group’s Joey Tribbiani. We learn that, while fishing on the Snake River with Kimmel, Fallon asked the guide if the river would go in a circle (“I thought it was a lazy river!”); he tells a story about trying to treat a cough by sleeping with chopped onions in his socks, to his co-hosts’ collective incredulity; he says he’s learning about grilling meat, describes his fancy equipment, and admits to burning stuff. (“Have you ever tried boiling hot dogs in beer?” he adds. “Game-changer.”) Then there’s this incredible exchange, about summer reading:

Colbert: So you never finished “Why You Should Read Moby Dick.”

Fallon: No, but I enjoyed it, up to a point . . . . I was, for two or three weeks, obsessed.

Kimmel: Maybe there needs to be a shorter book, called “Why Read ‘Why Read Moby Dick.’ ”

Colbert: Or “How to Read ‘Why to Read Moby Dick.’ ”

Kimmel: Or just “How to Read.”

Meyers: Based on what happened to Captain Ahab . . . to be able to let go of your obsession is a far healthier outcome.

Colbert: Do you have a favorite character from the book you didn’t read?

Fallon: Uh . . . Ishmael! That fact that there’s this guy . . . I would say, what is Ishmael? In his thirties?

Oliver (sounding especially British): Hey, Fallon, I don’t know how we did it, but Herman Melville just killed himself.

Later, Colbert tells the others that he’s prepared a quiz. “Fallon, there’s great news,” Oliver says. “The quiz is about the first line of ‘Moby Dick.’ ” (Here and elsewhere, the podcast made me laugh.) All of this may remind us that Fallon’s “Tonight Show,” centered on a host who’s best with amiable fluff, succeeded NBC’s astoundingly badly handled Conan-Leno debacle, and that Fallon’s outsized role in the late-night landscape is partly a by-product of network executives’ ineptitude. At one point in the podcast, Fallon attempts a game-show experiment for the guys and their wives, and fails to clarify who is meant to answer what about whom. Chaos and mass hysterics quickly result, and Fallon dissolves into helpless giggles. “I need segment producers so bad, and writers,” he says, barely able to speak. “I miss everybody so bad.”

“Strike Force Five” includes two notably powerful moments. The first demonstrates the importance of the strike and the potential that the podcast had to communicate it. Colbert, in order to call attention to one of the W.G.A.’s negotiating points, plays an ad for a sponsor that sounds like it’s read by Kimmel, Meyers, Oliver, and Fallon but which Colbert has created with A.I. The voices are almost uncanny, and even sound like they’re reading copy rather than speaking normally. The real co-hosts are flabbergasted.

“We got a year left till we’re all dead,” Meyers says.

“We’re fucked. It’s over,” Oliver says.

“I don’t understand what’s happening!” Kimmel says.

“This is why the guild’s got to hold the line,” Colbert says. “That cost me thirty bucks, by the way.”

The other moment comes from Jon Stewart, who seems to descend upon the Strike Force like a ghost from the future, dispensing wisdom about nightly comedy TV. “Here’s the thing about what we do, guys,” he says. “When you leave what we do, you disappear. Seinfeld leaves and you still watch him every night at 11,” and you laugh, and enjoy a fun sitcom forever. “When we leave, you disappear. And if Oprah can leave and the world still turns . . .” There’s a heavy pause, followed by nervous, explosive riffing. “We make egg salad, guys,” Stewart concludes. “No matter how good the egg salad is, after three days, you’re, like, ‘Can someone fuckin’ throw that out?’ ” As of Wednesday, one entertainment-world strike is over; let’s hope that the other ends well, too. For now, bring on the egg salad. ♦


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